This week the Great Falls School Board voted 4-3 to accept the election results for the May 2, 2023 school board election. Typically accepting the canvass- which means accepting the results of the election- is a perfunctory measure. The Election Administrator provides the election results and the total cost of the election, and the School Board simply accepts the results. However, the days when Cascade County’s election results can be relied on are long past.
Before the vote, Superintendent Tom Moore and Brian Patrick provided an overview of the canvass, including highlighting several significant errors. Many of these errors were first brought to light by the Election Protection Committee. Moore discovered further errors during the private meeting in which Sandra Merchant provided the canvass results. Moore noted that voters in Districts 19C and 21B were seemingly not mailed their absentee ballots whatsoever. Merchant seemingly ignored over 400 registered absentee voters in these districts. The District was also provided different voting totals. The Election Administrator first provided results, but the County Attorney’s Office then provided different results, with a difference of 75 votes. Although Patrick asked the County Attorney’s office to explain this difference, the District did not receive a response before Monday night’s School Board meeting.
The District also provided a list of 17 questions to Merchant which were vital to the discussion of the Canvass. Merchant failed to respond to a number of those questions. Moore intimated that after asking the County Attorney’s office about why Merchant had not provided these answers, the County Attorney stated that they could not MAKE Merchant do anything but could only offer advice and recommendations.
Another tremendous concern is the cost of the election itself. Despite requesting a mail election in their original agreement, Merchant refused to honor this request. Rather, Merchant opted for a more complicated and likely more expensive hybrid election, which included a poll election. Poll elections require renting a space and paying additional costs of staffing that election. Merchant originally provided the District an estimated cost of around $41,000. It appears this estimate was based off a previous mail election, which would not accurately reflect the costs of a poll election. The District requested the bill for the May 2, 2023 election, but as of Monday, Merchant had not provided this.
Accepting the results of the canvass also obligates the School District to pay the Election Administrator for the cost of the election- a cost that is still unknown. Trustees asked questions about the obligations of the District should Merchant’s bill exceed the original estimate. Trustee Bill Bronson indicated that he would refuse to pay any excess costs and would be willing to take the matter to court if necessary.
The Trustees were presented with various options as to how to proceed. If the Trustees opted not to accept the canvass, they could pursue a separate legal route which would allow the Board to appoint 3 members for a one-year term, and then put all candidates on the ballot again during the next election cycle. Not accepting the canvas would also mean the Board would not have to agree to the yet-undisclosed total cost.
After lengthy discussion, including public commentary and an examination of legal recourse, a motion was made to accept the results of the canvass. The votes were as follows:
Kim Skornogoski- No
Marlee Sunchild- No
Amie Thompson- No
Bill Bronson- Yes
Gordon Johnson- Yes
Mark Finnicum- Yes
Paige Turoski- Yes
Skornogoski, Sunchild, and Thompson all indicated they were uncomfortable accepting results when they recognized the process was flawed. In his comments, Bronson explained that his understanding of the law influenced his vote. As the results showed a decisive victory for the winners, he believes case precedent would show that the flaws in the election were not enough to overturn the results. Turoski acknowledged the incompetence shown by Merchant in her running of the election, but still opted to accept the results as the two losing candidates did not voice any objections.
Now voters must await Merchant’s final bill. When will it be provided? No one seems quite sure. Merchant, who failed to even attend a recent court hearing regarding her work, did not attend the School Board meeting either. Merchant has refused to speak to the media (save a far-right radio station, which she has graced with her presence). She fails to respond to emails and telephone calls, and apparently even the County Attorney’s office has seemingly given up on getting her to perform her job duties. If Merchant will bill the School District for the excessive costs of the poll election remains to be seen. Regardless, those additional costs will come straight out of our pockets. It is our tax money that pays for all of this, including her $70,000 annual salary. When Merchant chooses to run the least economically feasible type of election, our community suffers the costs- both literal, ethical, and legal.